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Board of Variance: How did this mess happen?

September 27th, 2009 · 8 Comments

I just got off the phone with recently dismissed Vancouver Board of Variance member Ray Tomlin to try to understand the events leading up to this week, when city manager Penny Ballem essentially fired him (following a council vote to do so, after getting a request from board chair Tony Tang to look at the issue).

This is what I’ve been able to disentangle from this unpleasant situation so far. Try to follow if you can.

Ray, one of the two Board of Variance directors fired by the previous NPA board, had had many discussions with Tony in the first six months of this year, along with Arminder Randhawa, about the changes they would make to the board to take it back to its previous style of operation.

You’ll recall that after the NPA canned the COPE-appointed board back in 2007 because they didn’t like the size of their legal bills and the number of third-party appeals they were hearing in fights between neighbourhoods and developers over specific pieces of property, the council appointed Marguerite Ford to lead the Board. She streamlined the operations of the board, eliminating things like site visits to the properties the Board was ruling on and oral presentations by people appealing their cases to the board.

So Ray thought that he and Tony and Arminder, once appointed, would get rid of all that. (Though, as far as I can tell, there was no move to try to bring back third-party appeals under any conditions.) Then, according to him, at their first board meeting after they were appointed, on July 29, Tony and Arminder didn’t do everything Ray thought they would. Not coincidentally, Tony Tang is a Vision board member and Arminder Randhawa is the wife of park-board commissioner Aaron Jasper.

That’s problem one, according to Ray. Have there been any complaints from people whose cases are being heard at the board about the process? No. Have there been some site visits? Yes. Are people allowed to make oral presentations again? Yes. But he’s still unhappy about other things he thought they’d agreed on but haven’t happened.

Problem two. Somehow, in the city hall organization chart issued earlier this year, it indicated that the staff of the Board of Variance would now be reporting to Brenda Prosken, deputy head of community services, which oversees planning. Effectively, that makes the person in charge of planning also in charge of the independent body that’s supposed to review planning decisions. Has there been any indication to date that Brenda is interfering in the operations of the board? No, says Ray, but there is the possibility, he claims, she could get access to the board’s internal documents and legal opinions that it is using to come to decisions about cases involving the planning department.

Problem three. There appears to be some huge kind of personal problem between Ray and Arminder that I’m not even going to attempt to summarize, in part because these kinds of conflicts are impossible to summarize without a) a novel b) a libel lawyer standing at one’s elbow. Suffice to say that they appear to have said many unpleasant things to and about each other. Ray’s was more public, because he posted notes on his Facebook site saying he wished he had never supported her as a candidate for the Board of Variance.  However, there appears to have been some kind of public dispute at a Sept. 2 board meeting that got very personal on both their parts — a meeting that some tried to suggest should be taken out of the public meeting but wasn’t.

At this point, without reviewing audio tapes and files and many emails, I can’t say I am confident about what is really going on, how much of this is genuine “issues” and how much of it is a bunch of people with personality problems who aren’t very skilled at resolving them.

The usual test of a real problem, in the world I operate in, is if the public is being negatively affected or there’s a potential for them to be negatively affected. Ray acknowledged to me that no one who has had an appeal before the new Board has expressed any concerns to him about the way the Board of Variance is operating. He can’t point to a decision that he thinks was a mistake because of the Board’s “bad” processes. And his concern about the Board having to report to Brenda Prosker is, at the moment, very academic.

There does need to be as much effort made as possible to ensure that the Board is independent, because people who come to the Board rely on that. I guess that’s what the city manager is going to investigate or have investigated.

My ultimate conclusion on all this is that the new Vision crew could have invested more time in deciding who to appoint to this board. Given the recent history, it was bound to be contentious. (Though it’s not the only one — I’ve heard rumblings about internal fighting at various points several times in the past decade.) That’s even though it actually doesn’t deal, at the moment, with very big issues. For those who don’t know, the vast majority of cases the Board hears are about non-conforming decks or additions that don’t quite mesh with the bylaw and fine-grained issues like that.

I await your comments and analysis.

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  • A. G. Tsakumis


    I also spoke with Ray last night, but found his meticulous notes, records and information far more credible than your interpretation.

    1) What is the wife of Vision Vancouver Parks Commissioner Aaron Jasper doing sitting on the Board of Variance??? He is a REALTOR. She sits on a Board that has access (through Planning etc.) to a great deal of information about city properties, planning, bylaw changes etc. For Aaron to be FOOL enough to have allowed this to happen is stunning. No one is saying anything untoward is taking place but the potential, at least, apparent conflict of interest is glaring.

    2) I think the mtng with Penny Ballem and Ray will be interesting to talk about…

    3) How is Tony Tang, a developer (my discovery) Chair of the Board of Variance?

    4) The Vision majority on the B o V want to kick up a number of responsibilities to council. Why? Does this not sound familiar? Ballem meets problem, intimidates (according to Ray), problem won;t acquiesce, so problem is eliminated under the specious guise of moving on or “incompatibility”. Can you say ‘Sue Mundick’? It’s just a different scale. The common denominator here is Ballem, whose over-reaching, once again, has cost the city a non-partisan, unbiased employee/worker/committee member, etc.

    5) When Vision were campaigning, they did so, in part, to return the B o V “back to where it was”. Really? They’re gutting it by loading partisan hacks, with little background, if at all, in real estate matters. Randawa is a para-legal for Christ’s sake! What about the others? Nada (except for Tang, who would be fine if he were NOT active in the building business in Vancouver–not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with this, but the potential for conflict is, again, glaring)

    The only criteria that seems to have been met here is that four Vision hacks were appointed along with a long-time COPE stalwart, Tomlin, but a VERY decent and unbiased guy, who has done some superb work in the past. A real loss for the B oV.

    Yup, Vision really are operating differently from Sam’s crew. Yup…sure are….yup…

  • When the only industries in town are petty squabbling, flogging real estate and playing the numbers . . . what can you expect from THU HALL?

    Moral bankrupty . . . live with it . . .

  • PS And offering bloated and excessive salaries that tend to attract the wrong people . . . yes . . . moral bankrupty!

  • PS and persisting with the practice ( over priced green guru for Chicago) during a hiring freeze . . .

  • Just Passing By


    “Previously, Dr. Ballem had convened a one-hour meeting with me, on Tuesday, Sept. 15th wherein she alleged “obstructive” behaviour on the part of this writer, as a member of the Board, such information based on hearsay, all of which I denied categorically, without reservation, at the meeting. At that meeting, Dr. Ballem demanded my resignation. I did not do so as her information did not warrant my resignation. It is the hope of this writer that Dr. Ballem did not repeat these false, injurious allegations to Council.” From Ray Tomlin Statement

    WOW. If true…no comments!

    FIRST. Ballem CANNOT “ask” someone to resign from this Board. The Board is not appointed by Ballem or by any of the City Staff and THAT request is a crass 101 intimidation technique.

    SECOND. This Board serves the PUBLIC INTEREST (apparently) with no interference from the City Staff (again apparently) and is made out of VOLUNTEERES! Yes Penny, YOU cannot fire a volunteer! The difference between YOU and any VOLUNTEER serving on the numerous boards and committees is that YOU are PAID (for reasons I don’t understand yet) and they are NOT (see the irony here?) for doing mainly the same thing : assisting our CITY. Judging by the way the City has been managed during the past years we don’t need either a City “Manger” and/or City “politicians”. I bet we can do as good or even better without any of them. Savings right there! Imagine (wishful thinking) we fire them all tomorrow, well, I doubt they would even be employable, because I can’t see how their backstabbing, misinformation tactics, cronyism, bullying, arrogance, backroom dealing and party politics be used as transferable skills.

    I think it is about time for us the public to call these entire hypocrites on their BS (bureaucratic shenanigans). WatchUfink?

    “…Tony and Arminder didn’t do everything Ray thought they would. Not coincidentally, Tony Tang is a Vision board member and Arminder Randhawa is the wife of park-board commissioner Aaron Jasper.”
    From Frances B and Ray T phone conversation.

    There you go. So it turns out that this Board is as “independent” as a house cat. Shameful, no, disgusting really! A VV board member, a VV park commissioner’s wife and the only one that wasn’t VV is…OUT! How people change. It seems like yesterday, when they were COPE activists and NDP supporters; when Aaron was driving a school bus during Mel Lehan’s first shot at our Premier and Arminder was photo shooting with Carole James, Ray was there too. Then priorities changed. Jobs changed. Real estate in Vancouver changed. VV pulled a Brutus technique on COPE and voila, people changed. Not for the better, not for the better I may say. At least now thanks to Ray (the only one with a spine so far) we know. Pitiful!

    Oh, and one more thing that I read not long ago, cited from memory, of course with a bit of editing, you don’t need to speak German to get this. It just feels appropriate, that’s all!

    “Bewegen , bewegen Sie Elefant Volk , Sie klein erbärmlich Kräfte , Sie unterirdisch Sklavinnen. ICH Penny , bin gehend nach ausschlagen ihrer Dummköpfe bis zu Sie werden anerkennen mich als ihrer endgültig Chef. Ich bin Gott und Sie sind nicht , Sie jämmerlich Affen. Ich bin ein Ballem! ”

  • Tim Louis

    Frances Bula misses the point. She indicates that on-site visits have not come to an end. This is not the case. The practice used to be that the entire Board of Variance would visit every site on the agenda prior to its bi-monthly meeting. At these on-site visits, the entire board would access the property and the building. The current practice is that only board members who wish to do site visits do so and even these visits are restricted to drive-bys. The only member of the Board of Variance who rightly suggested continuing with complete onsite visits by all board members is fired.

  • Serious allegations have been leveled that have placed the City’s planning process under a cloud. Mayor Robertson would be well-advised to appoint an independent investigation to report back to Council and the public on how best to restore faith in the integrity of the City’s planning and appeals process.

  • Alicia Barsallo



    Suppose that a developer asks the City to relax zoning bylaws so that the developer may erect a ten-story building beside your place of residence. You are entitled to argue against it before the decision is made. You are also entitled to appeal a decision to allow the breach. Who hears the case? The Board of Variance. The Board of Variance is an important and powerful organism of our city government that has the authority to overrule decisions by the planning department concerning development permits, zoning, signage, and trees.

    Given its power, it is of utmost importance that the Board of Variance be made up of fair-minded people and that it proceed with the utmost transparency. This is what Ray Tomlin, then member of the five-member council-appointed Board, argued when his colleagues decided that they did not need to see an affected neighbourhood before ruling on a case.  Ray also argued transparency when he opposed his colleagues’ decision to hold meetings behind closed doors, in violation of the Vancouver Charter and other statutes.

    During July and August, Ray pleaded with his fellow members to explain their decisions.  He appealed to the City Manager when his colleagues refused his entreaties. The result? He was fired. 
    Ray’s dismissal raises serious questions that this new City Council needs to answer:
    ‘Is the City running roughshod over Ray Tomlin because he presents a potential obstacle to a smooth run for developers?’
    ‘Why is a member of the Board punished for wanting transparency?’

    Ray Tomlin must be reinstated. 

    Vancouverites need Ray Tomlin back on the Board of Variance because he represents our interests. We need Ray back on the Board of Variance because if an ordinary Vancouverite ever has to appear before the Board of Variance, Ray will be working hard to make sure that the appellant gets a fair hearing.

    Many patient Vancouverites have been letting down their guard placing their trust in this new City Council that has replaced the NPA. It behooves this new Council to show us that it did not get elected to simply do more of the same. Or does the new City Council represent the same interests as the old?

    Alicia Barsallo